Regarding the Weinstein sexual harassment and assault situation, The Washington Post recently asked why so many men are confused about the concept of consent. I responded that, in fact, they are not confused, they just don’t care. It is not a knowledge problem, but a morality problem.
Now, of course, the #metoo social media movement has highlighted what may be a disparity between what men consider to be sexual harassment and what women do. But Harvey Weinstein’s (and Bill Clinton’s and Bill Cosby’s and Woody Allen’s and Roman Polanski’s and Roger Ailes’) actions don’t stem from confusion about what is acceptable behavior toward women, but a lack of moral character.
The lack of moral character in Hollywood is sometimes evinced not by actual sexual misconduct, but by the stunning silence that surrounds the open secrets of the producers, directors, actors and more who engage in it. Dozens of women have leveled allegations against Weinstein alone. The list includes, but is not limited to, Ashley Judd, Rose McGowan, Mira Sorvino, Rosanna Arquette, Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Beckinsale. There are many more names on the list. The stories got around: Jessica Barth told her friend Seth McFarlane, who then joked about Weinstein when he hosted the 2013 Oscars as a way to “stand up to” Weinstein. Even when he wasn’t sexually harassing women, he was threatening and bully them. For just that reason, Kate Winslet ‘deliberately’ did not thank him during her Oscar acceptance speech in 2009 for a movie he produced.
Yet, despite the jokes and the pointed passings over, Weinstein’s behavior was not addressed. Until now. Now everyone in Hollywood is eager to denounce the behavior of a man whose behavior they were well aware of and that they did nothing about. The whole thing drips with moral cowardice. (To be clear, not the fact that many women did not come forward until now; that itself is a product of the lack of action by those in Hollywood who knew.)
It is not difficult to see how such a thing could come about and be perpetuated. Fox News recently dug up an old story in The Washington Post in which it was reported that Weinstein helped pay Bill Clinton’s legal bills during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Birds of a feather protect sexual harassers together. The original Post story reveals that he was just one of many Hollywood liberals to do so:
Further details about Clinton’s testimony emerged on the same day that the president’s legal defense fund announced it has raised $2.2 million in the last six months, more than was collected during the previous four years of his presidency combined. The newly reconstituted defense fund, operating with looser rules about who can give and how much they can offer, tapped into resentment against Starr as more than 17,000 Clinton supporters sent money.
Hollywood was quick to come to the president’s aid. Among the 62 donors giving the maximum $10,000 were performers and directors such as Tom Hanks, Barbra Streisand, Michael Douglas, Ron Howard, Norman Lear, Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw-Spielberg as well as studio executives Jeffrey Katzenberg, David Geffen, Harvey Weinstein and Bud Yorkin.
Ultimately, they supported a man who turned out to have lied under oath and obstructed justice — a man who has been accused of not only infidelity, but harassment and rape, numerous times. Whether this was done out of naivete, or because political allegiance (like Hollywood job opportunities) trump character for so many, is irrelevant. A cabal worked with the end result of protecting a man repeatedly-accused of sexual misconduct while in a position of power over women. With that in mind, it is not difficult to see how a similar cabal could have kept the Weinstein situations quiet. Even Winslet, who chose not to thank him in her Oscar speech, has defended her work with Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. The same thing is almost certainly keeping sexual abuse of young boys from being addressed — within the very industry that awarded Spotlight the Best Picture Oscar, a film about the investigation of the Catholic Church around Boston covering up the same thing.
It is not for lack of knowledge that these actions are evil that they are not addressed. Hollywood pats itself on the back for recognizing that, as Spotlight’s Oscar shows. It is that the morally cowardly enable the evil people among them. That is why the primary value of moral education is in inculcating not knowledge, but habits, for habits, over time, build character, and character — strong character — is what holds up to the pressure of those abusing power. By extension, the moral value of Christianity is not in providing rules to affect behavior, but in changing who we are. As the second chapter of Romans tells us, the Gentiles know and keep the Law instinctively.
Except for when they don’t.
Almost every human being has sufficient moral sense to know what is right in situations like this and many others. Many even want to do right, but we quite often fail — the author of Romans included, as he tells us five chapters later. We fail because moral decisions, even ones that benefit us individually, are hard, especially when they are not habits. This is why Thalerian nudges are so popular with people who simultaneously dislike control over their lives.
Among the problems with Thalerian behavioral economics, for which Richard Thaler was recently awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, is that it easily can become the lazy man’s substitute for character. Everyone wants to do what is right, but only if it is easy. By contrast, character, defined using some economic terms, is the ability to withstand the nudge of incentives toward badness. The charge of virtue is frightening, hence Augustine’s prayer that the Lord make him pure, “but not yet.”
Perhaps there is nothing wrong with nudges toward the sort of amoral maximizing of utility that these days constitutes a little too much of the metaphysical basis of economic science. That’s just it though: maximizing utility is one thing; substituting an external restraining power on “will and appetite” for the inner one atrophies the muscle of character. Burke knew of the need for inner moral restraints, but he wrote of it in contrast to the (external) formal control of the French state following the Revolution. He appears not to have anticipated the contemporary evolution to the form the external sort of restraint takes today, which is courtesy of the anthropology of homo economicus. By rigging the market, we hope to have our cake and eat it too, remaining free while encouraging virtue, misappropriating institutions to our own degradation.
One effect of the overextension of market (or other institutional) incentives toward good behavior in place of robust moral development is that, like the air in a half-inflated mattress when sat upon, vice collects wherever it finds the least resistance. Sin taxes, for example, have been found not to decrease sin, but to shift it elsewhere.
That is why moral education is so necessary: to build habits, and eventually character, that will keep us standing in the face of incentives to protect our own tribes, our own comfort or our own economic and job prospects. Those who held — and continue to hold — the open secrets of Hollywood’s sexual abuse and do nothing, and likewise those of us who would rather we were forced or incentivized to do good than to leave it up to our will, undermine a free society intended to empower the individual. The responsibility that comes with liberty and with power includes the personal responsibility to build habits of strong moral character in each of us, for as Burke observed, “It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”